It’s been five years since the White Sox went to the playoffs, so no one can exactly say they’ve been exceeding expectations. And after a quiet off-season—the Sox added one player expected to contribute significantly, a perfectly capable journeyman in Jeff Keppinger, the “human ball return”—expectations aren’t especially high this season. And PECOTA, the projection system developed by Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus, is pretty unforgiving: a complete 180 from 85-77 to 77-85, as Mark Gonzalez reports.
But Gonzalez gives the PECOTA projections and actual records for the Sox going back to 2005, and an interesting pattern emerges: the Sox have averaged seven wins above their projections over that period, despite always being projected as a middling, near-.500 team. Only twice have they fallen below projections, and not by much: one game and three games. They’ve exceeded projections in the other six years, by six to 19 wins (the latter in 2005, when they won the World Series).
PECOTA is far from infallible, but it’s still odd for one team to come out that far ahead. So Dave Cameron of Fangraphs decided to interrogate the numbers, and came up with an interesting theory.
1. The White Sox have had the most effective pitching staff in that period, despite not having a top-shelf pitcher (Mark Buehrle was wonderfully consistent, but he wasn’t a lights-out ace).
2. Their pitchers don’t get hurt very often. With freakish infrequency:
The overall health of the White Sox during the last decade has been pretty staggering. Look specifically at the blue pitcher injury bars. From 2002 to 2011, the White Sox pitchers lost fewer than 2,000 days to the DL, while most teams were over 3,000, a lot of teams were over 4,000, and the Rangers were up over 6,000. The White Sox had a remarkable run of pitcher health, and as new GM Rick Hahn told a group of FG readers and authors in Phoenix a few years ago, the organization views Cooper and the training staff as one of the main reasons the team has been competitive during this stretch.
But they haven’t just outperformed PECOTA; they’ve outperformed what’s expected of them based on their payroll (even including their expensive, disappointing 2011). As new Cubs consultant Tom Tango figured out, the Sox “should” have had a .510 winning percentage from 2002-2011, and it was actually .522. The Cubs’ ratio was .525/.494, meaning the Cubs spent about as much as the Angels and Dodgers to be about as good as the Astros. And that translates into wins:
The main point when looking at the long term trends is how the Chicago White Sox are able to lose fewer than half the number of days as 8 other teams (Colorado, Arizona, Kansas City, Cincinnati, LA Dodgers, Washington, New York Mets and Texas). In the last few years some teams, like the Dodgers, have tried to put a better foot forward in limiting injuries.
Another point is that teams have an expected winning percentage as seen in this discussion at The Book Blog. Some teams under and over perform their expected winning percentage based on the team’s salary over the last 10 years. Some of the teams who under performed, like the Mets and Royals, are at the top of the days lost to the DL. Teams who have out performed their expected winning percentage, like the Cardinals and Twins, are in the bottom half of the list. It takes money to get wins in baseball. If that money is sitting on the bench because of an injury, the team can just expect to win fewer games.
Cooper plays things close to the chest, but he’s earned a rep for keeping his pitchers healthy. It might be cold comfort, given fan expectations, but they’ve done a pretty good job against what the numbers expect.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune